In Japan, Izumo City's Mayor Sets Independent Course
IZUMO, the Land of Clouds, is one of the oldest provinces of Japan, the place where, every October, the tutelary deities of all the other provinces of Japan hold their annual conference. It's a land of legends, beloved by Lafcadio Hearn, the 19th century Irish writer who became a Japanese citizen. And it's the home of the Izumo Dome.
The dome sits like an overturned bowl on the flat plain leading to Izumo City, its creamy, teflon-coated roof visible for miles around, its wooden frame constructed of sturdy Douglas fir. Mayor Tetsundo Iwakuni says he got the idea for the structure when he visited the Astrodome in Houston several years ago.
This dome, of course, is of a size suitable for a city of 80,000. It seats 2,500 people and is large enough for high school basketball or soccer. It's environment-friendly, in that it has neither heating nor air conditioning, but shields audiences comfortably from the elements. Izumo, as its name indicates, is not blessed with much sun.
Before the dome, many outdoor sports events had to be canceled because of rain or snow. Now the dome is in use just about every day of the year, at prices modest enough for schools and charitable groups to afford.
When so many news stories from Japan these days are about angry trade disputes with the United States, Europe, and other regions, it's good to be able to report that once you get out of Tokyo, there are many cities and towns like Izumo, where the pace of life is measured and the outside world impinges hardly at all.
Izumo's present is as interesting as its past, all because of its mayor. Mr. Iwakuni returned to his native city four years ago after a lifetime spent in banking and securities, mostly overseas.
When the mayorship fell vacant, Iwakuni said he felt the pull of his home town and gave up a vice presidency at Merrill Lynch in New York, where every three minutes the same amount of money passed through his hands as Izumo's entire annual budget ($240 million).
His dream, Iwakuni told me over a Sunday barbecue lunch, was to make city government as efficient as the best-run corporations in the country. And he has fulfilled it: Two years ago, Japan's leading business weekly ranked Izumo as one of the nine best-run companies in the country, side by side with giants like Toyota or Mitsubishi.
Iwakuni has also shown political courage: I have heard him lecture to citizen's groups on Japan's responsibility for Pearl Harbor, hardly a popular subject, and on the need to ensure that Japan never goes to war again.
Of medium height, Iwakuni is a forceful, persuasive speaker. He has galvanized his city's formerly sleepy bureaucracy, promoting local industry, attracting businesses and educational institutions, and improving services for senior citizens and others. "They're the same officials who were in city hall when I was elected," he said, "and I don't pay them bigger salaries than before, but now they're willing to staff weekend branches of city hall in the supermarkets." That's a concept pioneered by Iwakuni and
followed by a number of other cities. "He can be frightening, but he's also exhilarating," said one of his subordinates.
Iwakuni calls the Izumo Dome his city's contribution to redressing the trade imbalance with the US. From several designs submitted by construction companies, the mayor chose one featuring a wooden framework and had the lumber imported from Oregon.
The dome has enlivened the city's atmosphere. Because of it, more young people stay in Izumo instead of leaving for larger metropolises.
Iwakuni's solution to the problem of Japan's whopping trade surpluses with the US (nearly $50 billion last year) is to make Japanese lives richer and more comfortable. "We can spend much more than we do on improving social amenities," he says, and in making imported goods more attractive to Japanese. The Izumo Dome is one example, but there are many others.
The people of Japan have got to reach out more, Iwakuni says, not only to America, but to other lands. He has recently established a sister-city relationship with Xianyang, an ancient city of inner China. He has served as a visiting professor at the University of Virginia's business school.
Does he ever think of service at the national level? He is not without ambition, and if some day the prime minister of Japan is chosen by popular vote rather than in the smoke-filled rooms of the Diet (Parliament) - as some opinion leaders advocate - he might be tempted. But that is still, he admits, a long shot.